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California’s first black professor taught at the Mount

Written by Victoria McCargar, University Archivist

SKIMMING THROUGH THE 1957 YEARBOOK, we noticed that among the 10 smiling members of the Nursing Department faculty was an African-American woman identified as Mrs. Betty Williams. We wondered whether that was unusual — how many faculties at California colleges and universities had black faculty in those days?

It didn’t take Google long to produce an answer: Our Betty Smith Williams was the first black professor in California — male or female, in any subject, anywhere in higher education. It says so right here.


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Betty Williams, center, with nursing colleagues Marjorie Cogan and Sister Richard Joseph in 1958. Photo taken from The Mount Archives blog.

Should we be surprised? After all, the Mount graduated a young African-American woman, Vivian Burgess ’52, from its first-in-California bachelor’s in nursing program. The brilliant Sister who made that happen, Rebecca Doan, CSJ, was still chair of Nursing in the fall of 1956 when Betty Williams broke the color barrier and joined the faculty.

Williams herself had already broken that same  barrier when she became the first African-American to earn a master’s in nursing at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio in 1954.

She taught at the Mount for 13 years, moving to the faculty at UCLA and many more firsts. You can read about them here: http://bit.ly/1Tt95d4

Now 82, Dr. Betty Smith Williams remains actively engaged in issues of ethnic and racial diversity in nursing and nursing education, and continues to speak to the importance of cultural competency among nursing professionals.

In 2010, she received the prestigious designation Living Legend of the American Academy of Nursing, the second member of the Mount community to reach that pinnacle after Sister Callista Roy, CSJ (2007).

Dr. Williams’ amazing academic career got its start because our {Unstoppable} founding Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet weren’t afraid to be bold — nor were they interested in holding to the conventions of the day.

To the women and men of the Class of 2016 who will soon receive their diplomas, congratulations! In the footsteps of Sister Rebecca, Vivian Burgess, Dr. Williams and all the other remarkable people of the Mount who have gone before you, be {Unstoppable}. Be a first.


Betty Williams, seated at the end of the table, joins the rest of the nursing faculty in a humorous moment during a meeting, 1956-1957. Photo taken from The Mount Archives blog.



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